Falcons, Dogs, and a Crusade
The 19th century promoted Emperor Frederick II into a diplomatic wonder and showed him as a philosopher of enlightened tolerance. This contrasted starkly with the treatment of Muslims in Sicily. And his reading habits were not quite those of a philosopher, either.
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From amongst the Arab side of the philosophy of science, Frederick was mainly interested in hawking. For centuries, the Arab world had gained vast experience in falconry and produced a voluminous literature on this topic. In order to deepen his knowledge of hunting, the Emperor therefore collected numerous Arabic texts and had them translated into Latin. In this context falls a treatise known as Moamin which includes besides falconry a treatise on the medical treatment for dogs. The text is not original but a compilation of two other Arab sources. At Frederick’s court, and under participation of the emperor, a number of versions of this treatise were compiled at the time and their tradition extends for more than eight centuries. Today, the corpus includes at least 70 manuscripts in over a dozen languages.
The Moamin versions emanating from the court at Palermo are prime examples of the oriental-occidental knowledge transfer in Christian Europe. And they are evidence of an Arabic literature lost in the original to the Arab world of today as they have been preserved only in Christian, European translations. Based on these documents and combined with the Emperor’s own observation of birds the famous treatise De Arte Venandi Cum Avibus (The Art of Hunting with Birds) emerged. It is infallibly linked to the name of Frederick II.
The fact that a ruler was interested in a different culture underlined his thirst for knowledge. Perhaps it reflects the understanding that other cultures have done great things, too. This is remarkable not only for the Middle Ages. As a proof of friendship or affection of the Emperor towards Islam it is worthless. Frederick’s study of Arabic literature was not a case of inclination, but the benefits of obtained scientific information caught the ruler’s attention.
Frederick was also pursuing a pragmatic policy in the Holy Land. In June 1228, the Emperor cast off the lines at the port of Brindisi to launch his crusader fleet. Embarked on a galley, he went to a nearly year-long military expedition to the east. As early as 1215, he had taken his crusading vow. 13 years later, the Emperor finally set foot on oriental soil.
Soon after his arrival at his camp south of Acre, Frederick started negotiations with over the ruling Egyptian Sultan Al-Malik al-Kamil (1218 to 1238), a nephew of the famous Saladin. The sultan had fought for years with this family over the inheritance of his uncle in the Middle East. One area in which the interests of the various family members embroiled in the discussion overlapped was Palestine. Having a crusader army encamped exactly there did not fit into the plans of the sultan.
The negotiations began with the deployment of two messengers to the sultan’s camp in Nablus and proceeded at snail’s space despite the mutual presentation of precious gifts. Until November 1228, Frederick’s army remained at Acre. They then moved south to Jaffa, now part of Tel Aviv, to spend the winter there. In 2011, an inscription in Latin and Arabic was discovered there – so far the only known inscription in Arabic made by Crusaders – that bears witness to the presence of the emperor in the city.